A Montessori Moment in Egypt’s History

 By Inas Hassan

The day after the announcement that Mubarak was no longer President of Egypt, there was an unprecedented sense of freedom among a large number of Egypt’s citizens. People felt that an oppressive load was lifted from their collective shoulders and were now free to take action. What sort of action were they to take in this newfound freedom? Forming militant groups to revenge against the old order? Forming political groups to assert their rights? Slandering the old regime? Pillaging and creating havoc?

No; none of the above. What most regular Egyptians did on the 12 of February; young and old, men and women, mothers and children; was to go down and clean the streets. That’s right picking up rubbish, sweeping the streets, painting the edges of the side walks, fences and light poles and planting trees.

Although school was delayed for a few weeks I was actually delighted with the learning opportunities offered my children through the street cleaning campaigns. You may think I’m crazy, preferring that my children sweep the streets than go to school! Well YES, it’s true. It is because I realised that what they were taking part in was:

A true Montessori moment.

Maria Montessori found that, contrary to popular belief, when children are given true freedom of action their natural inclination is to act responsibly. The Egyptian revolution showed us that the perceived freedom Egyptians felt led them to a deeper relationship with their environment and a feeling of responsibility for it. Montessori is all about education through interaction with the environment and what better education is there that instils young Egyptians with the sense that “YES, WE CAN DO IT”.  They learned that together: we can clean the streets, we can eliminate corruption, and we can build a better and brighter future for Egypt.

That is the beauty of both this revolution and the Montessori Method of education. For both did not create something new but rather provided the atmosphere for the growth of natural inborn tendencies within each human being to want to contribute in a positive way to society.

The children in Montessori’s schools proved that their real need is to be absorbed in work and have freedom to choose their occupation. What was amazing was that ‘discipline’ spontaneously appeared as a result of this freedom.  This was evident in her experience with students in her school over 40 years and in widely varying parts of the world.

Montessori developed her method by observing the young children in her preschools. She found that they were not as much interested in playing with traditional toys as they were in trying to use real utensils and equipment used by adults. She observed that children from lower socio economic backgrounds have a developmental advantage over their richer peers in that they naturally and actively take part in real life with their parents rather than being relegated to another room to play with artificial toys. So you could imagine the joy of my three year old Mostafa when we told him he was going to clean the streets with us. He took to the task seriously and enthusiastically on a number of occasions, as you can see by this photo.

Such freedom to become absorbed in meaningful work creates a state of satisfaction seldom seen at school. I was so happy when my fifteen year old Amira came home from a day of street sweeping and traffic island painting and told me she just had one of the best days of her life. Also, it was priceless to see the look of pride at a job well done when my nephew Yasser had just finished meticulously painting parking spaces and no standing traffic indicators on the street in front of our building.

Although Montessori found that children in her schools were happy, this was not the whole aim of education but rather for the child to develop himself into the man he is to be, to be “independent in his powers and character, able to work and assert his mastery over all that depends on him” (The Absorbent Mind, p.170). I believe this is the kind of education which was taking place on the streets of Egypt.

Now that the children are back at school with their day broken up into arbitrary periods with ‘lessons’ keeping them occupied and exams to study for, this spontaneous interaction with the environment has abated.  What Montessori observed 100 years ago still applies today: “the schools we have today cannot help the creative instincts of the children who feel in themselves a true delight in activity, a real joy in hard work, in finding the beauty of work, in comforting the unhappy and helping the weak.” (p.241)

I can’t wait til the holidays when I hope our children will have the time and motivation to resume cleaning and rebuilding our country.

Inas Hassan

Related:   http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/13/big-society-egyptian-cairo

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